Almost ever since I first moved to Chicago, I have wanted to go and visit this restaurant called Moto here in town. It’s run by a chef named Homaru Cantu, and his ideas on food and how you make it are so groundbreaking that people come from all over the world to check this place out. He specializes in cooking food in the strangest ways — he uses lasers and liquid nitrogen to cook, he developed a “special box,” patent pending, that will cook fish right at your table, and he loves printing flavors on edible paper. The whole restaurant is a weird mix of science, food, and art that has fascinated me, as I said, almost since I first moved here.
The problem, though, is that it’s not cheap — no once-in-a-lifetime experience ever is. You go and order a ten course meal (you don’t order food, they just bring you whatever they’re cooking up that day), and then at the end of the meal it’s over a hundred dollars a person. So when my friend Jason suggested a few weeks ago that I finally go with him before I leave town this week to move to LA, I balked. But he made me, and after he and our friend Joanna went to have a 10 course dinner, it turned out to be more than worth it: it’s one of the tastiest, most thoughtful, and best meals I’ve ever had.
And I took notes, just so I could share the experience with you, dear reader. These pictures are courtesy of Joanna — she’s a professional photographer, so that is why they’re so awesome. The first thing they brought us was actually the menu:
Our menu (the list of the ten courses they were going to serve us that evening) was actually printed on a very thin slice of garlic bread — in the bottom of the dish was a small piece of garlic cooked in a butter vinagrette and an asparagus puree. The garlic was incredibly soft and warm — Jason remarked that they had to cook the garlic for a long time to get it that way.
I was fascinated, too, by the asparagus puree — it was so smooth and liquidy, yet it was very much asparagus. The combined feel of the menu itself was the perfect appetizer: an interesting mix of tastes that only got you ready for what was coming.
SCRAMBLED & muffin
The first actual course was this strange faked breakfast. One of the things they do at Moto, we quickly discovered, was play with expectations of what you thought things would taste like by making one kind of food look entirely like another. From the left, this appeared to be an english muffin, a group of scrambled eggs, and a tater tot. But it wasn’t at all: the eggs were actually a solidified lemon vinagrette with tomatoes and onions, no chicken involved. The “tater tot” was a piece of shrimp (perfectly cooked — I’m not even a huge fan of shrimp but it was incredibly tasty, and cooked exactly right all the way through), and the “english muffin” was the most interesting thing — a piece of puffed garlic with cooked corn puree serving as the butter. The garlic was intriguing — it was definitely garlic, but when you tried to eat it, it just disappeared in your mouth, mostly air. We asked the guy exactly how they did it, and he said it was basically a foam, ground up garlic that had been puffed up into that shape. Very weird.
I also noticed, later on, that their courses followed the path of a day’s meals — we started off with breakfast, moved on to some lunch-style meals, and then went to more dinner-based meals, and then dessert. At the time, that wasn’t completely apparent (they brought out a new course whenever you finished the last one, so the whole meal took a total of about four hours), but looking back, there was a definite plan to the way the courses were laid out.
This was one of the courses we liked the best — it was a risotto using jasmine rice in a parmesan cream sauce with bay scallops from Mexico and microarugula and basil (both of which were amazing — they grow microherbs and veggies right there on the property at Moto, we were told). The scallops, again, were terrific, and I don’t even usually like that kind of thing. But the rice was the best part — it was actually puffed, sort of like just-cooked rice crispies. So the idea was that you stirred it all together, and you could hear the rice popping and crackling with the cream, as they did the same thing in your mouth. It would have been a great dish with just the jasmine rice, but with all of the grains puffed up with texture, it was amazing.
Joanna is a vegetarian, and this was the first dish where they gave her something different. While we got those scallops, she got these tiny mushrooms, which were unbelievably good.
They’re called hon-shimeji mushrooms, and they’re the best mushrooms I’ve ever tasted — when you bit down on them, they exploded in a burst of mushroomy flavor. You can barely tell from the picture above (most of these pictures were taken very quickly, as our mouths were watering on all of these courses as soon as the plates hit the table), but they were a beautiful brown which blended perfectly with the parmesan cream and rice when it all mixed together. Just beautiful.
GRUYERE & onions
This is Moto’s take on french onion soup — they actually served us a platter with a puffed onion ring and a smear of melted gruyere cheese along with some precisely cooked onions, and then they poured the hot soup into the bowl. As the soup hit the onion ring (they called it a baguette), it too melted in with the cheese and the onions, and it was all great. This was another one of my favorites.
Jason found it really interesting — he never really liked french onion soup, but he liked this one, and when I asked him what was different, he said that it lacked the greasiness that most soups like this have (with the cheese and the onions, you can probably imagine why). But this one was different, and we talked for a little while about how trying the absolute best of a type of food can make you like almost all versions of it — having some really amazing sushi, for example, can make you like some lesser sushi as well. Having the best of something makes you look at even lesser versions of it in a different light, lets you process it in a different way. “It gives you a vocabulary for it,” Jason said. “A way of expressing an idea that you didn’t have before.” Something tame and casual like this, french onion soup, served in such an enticing way, would bring us back to this meal every time we had it again.
HOUSE-made pequin capon
This, if you can believe it, is their version of buffalo wings. The meat on top there is capon, which is apparently a castrated chicken (didn’t know that while I was eating it, and while it was good and well-cooked, it definitely didn’t surprise me as much as the scallops and shrimp earlier in the meal did). Underneath it was what they called a celery confit and some pureed celery roots. The most interesting part of the meal was the edible paper included with it — it had buffalo sauce flavoring on it, so you’d eat some of the paper, and then add some meat and celery, and the overall impression was of a pretty tame buffalo wing. The paper was strange stuff — you’d put it in your mouth and it wouldn’t melt, but it would sort of fall apart. It wasn’t actually paper, either — it sort of flaked apart. But it did taste like buffalo sauce, and the overall impression was of a pretty good recreation. Not my favorite, but an interesting idea.
Joanna got some veggies instead.
This was probably the most fun course we got — I had seen a Cuban pork sandwich mentioned on the menu earlier, and was extremely excited to try it (I had my first Cuban sandwich a few weeks ago and it was great). But when the sandwich actually showed up, it was in an ashtray, and they’d taken away our utensils, so we had to literally eat these edible cigars. The wrapping was collard greens, the label was edible paper, the tobacco inside was actually a tasty bit of pork shoulder, with a little red pepper puree on the end to make it seem just lit. The ash was probably the most interesting stuff — it was black and white sesame seeds, so we ended up dipping the “cigar” in the “ash,” and of course we were surprised just how good it tasted.
We had to have fun with this one, of course.
We were now clearly working our way up to dinner — this was probably the most substantial of all the dishes we’d had so far (even though it looks pretty simple above). This is a traditional ruben sandwich — beef brisket, a pickle concoction, and caroway seed dough — made up to look like a little cut of lasagna, with all of the ingredients layered out. The brisket was incredibly good, and the dough was even better. That is a potato chip standing upright, just enough to give that flavor with the sandwich, and that’s “russian sauce” (whatever that is — it was awesome) covering the whole thing. Jason was pretty astute with this one — he said he smelled dill in that powder on the side, but didn’t recognize it as the herb. When we asked the waiter what it actually was, he said they’d sprinkled dill pollen on the plate. Sneaky, and good call for Jason.
Joanna’s dish was completely different — she got this little potted plant to eat.
The “dirt” was actually what they called “balsamic dirt,” which doesn’t actually tell us what it was, although it did have an earthy flavor and a grit that did make it seem very dirtlike. There were more mushrooms in there, as well as more microarugula and some edible newspaper. All the way on the bottom (you can see one sneaking through the top there) were edible packing peanuts — white truffles puffed up. Joanna loved those.
I thought our dessert had arrived, but I was wrong, of course — this cannoli was actually a duck taquito. The pastry shell was a corn tortilla, with a filling of duck confit, and sour cream serving as the cream imposter. That’s jalapeno powder on the cannoli itself, and what looks like chocolate sauce is actually mole. Our waiter said they liked to call it the mole cannoli — cute. My mind had a really tough time getting around this one for some reason — the dish itself was very excellent, as all of the flavors went very well together and everything was cooked exactly right. But even as they explained the meal to us and even as I tasted the food itself, I couldn’t get around the idea that I was supposed to be eating pastry. For some reason I dived right in on the cigar, but on this one, my mind got stuck in between the two tastes.
Joanna had something called a SHABUccino:
It looked like coffee, sugar, and cream, but by now (we were old hands at this point) we knew it wasn’t that. It was actually a Japanese hot dish called shabu-shabu, with peas, asparagus and potatoes in a hot broth, along with more of those mushrooms (I personally think they heard us raving about how good the mushrooms were, so they kept showing up in the meals again). The sugar cubes were actually pressed oil powder — they were weird to taste, but I think the idea was to drop them in the soup and let them roam around in there for a bit.
We got an extra course in here (the restaurant was kind of empty that evening, so they pulled out a few courses for us from the 20 course menu):
An Arnold Palmer is a drink (named after the golfer) that consists of half iced tea and half lemonade, and this one was pretty simple — instead of serving them mixed, they served us two ice pops and it was up to us to eat them together. No alcohol, and this one was so simple it was more of a palate cleanser in between dinner and dessert anyway.
Joanna and Jason were most excited about this title, and I don’t think they were disappointed when it showed up: it was indeed a happy face. The face itself was a passion fruit sorbet, and you can’t see it in the picture, but it sat on a little bit of coconut cream which was, as you might imagine, terrific. I was amazed at how right they got the temperature — it was still frozen, but just melted enough that you could put your fork straight through it. The rest of the spread on the plate is a strawberry and blueberry puree with more coconut powder to mix in with it.
This was probably my favorite dessert of the evening and I’m not a huge fan of corn. It was a corn cake (as the name implies), but again I was amazed as just how perfectly cooked it was — the outside was warm and crusty, and the inside was warm and moist. That’s a sweet tea foam on top (Joanna was pretty delighted to see that — she had actually read a book on molecular gastronomy, and foam is a big deal in there apparently), and then there was candied corn and (I believe) peaches on the side. I wasn’t too thrilled about the candied corn (though we realized that after nine courses, we’d suddenly become food critics — when the food first showed up we were just aghast at how good it was, and now, nine courses in, we felt experienced enough to debate and second guess what they were doing), but the cake was amazing.
MILK CHOCOLATE forms, BURGER with ketchup, and ACME s’mores
We got a three-fer at the very end of the meal — the milk chocolate forms was the only thing on our original menu, but they shared the other two courses from the 20 course menu with us anyway. The milk chocolate forms was — well, I’m not sure quite what it was. At this point, I was just too full and too overwhelmed to take worthwhile notes. But it was tasty — the impression they said they wanted to give was of a malted milk ball, and we got it.
The bomb on the other end was a “smore bomb” — they came around with a small torch and lit the “fuse” on all of our bombs. The fuse itself was actually puffed marshmellow, and then we were instructed to eat the whole thing in one bite, at which point it blew up into a caramel-y liquid taste that was meant to serve as graham cracker, along with the chocolate coating and the burnt marshmellow flavor. I can’t judge whether or not it tasted exactly like a smore (again, at this point I was pretty overwhelmed with flavors), but it was good.
And finally, the little burger was one of the weirdest experiments we saw all night. It was a burger designed to taste like a banana split, with banana puree serving as the burger, some ice cream in there, some cherries for ketchup, and a tiny piece of iceberg lettuce just for effect. I didn’t really get a banana taste from it, though — it was more strange just to see the tiny little burger, no matter what it was made of. Jason largely enjoyed it. Get it? Largely?
And with that, we were done. It was an incredible meal, obviously. It was just amazing how much thought and time went into all aspects of the presentation, not just in the way things were cooked and the taste, but into the little plays on the different flavors and how the food looked and felt and smelled. You’d think that they’d have to compromise in some way while balancing taste and looks (no way, would I have thought, would you make a dish that looks that much like a cannoli but tastes that much like a taquito), but there were no compromises at all — they really reached far on both taste and presentation and with few exceptions they hit it out of the park every time.
It was strange how this meal affected the rest of my eating habits, too — the few days before and after I really found myself considering what I was putting in my mouth: how it was made, where it came from, and even what my own perceptions of it were like. And since I’ve been to Moto I’ve done more research on restaurants and food, and I’ve already found a few more places (in Paris and London, though I’m sure I’ll find something good in LA, too) that I can’t wait to check out.
Incredible meal, and what a strange and interesting way of looking at food and all of the various social and traditional (and technological) implications we place on it.